In Defense Of The United States Women’s National Team

I did not plan on writing anymore about the World Cup, but I feel like I have to.

In the two days since the World Cup has ended, I have been extremely surprised by what I have seen.  Rather than appreciate the fact that the US Women did their nation proud and placed second, an improvement on the last two World Cup performances, the sports media has directed invective toward the USWNT.   ESPN in particular, which pimped the USWNT to no end during the tournament, has been the biggest culprit.

This is not limited to ESPN of course.  The comments on All White Kit, a site that I admire very much, have been extremely negative (not the actual AWK bloggers who have been very fair and astute in their analysis.)  On World Football Daily, Kenny Hassan and his co-host of the day were questioning whether it was sexism that no one is calling the USWNT’s performance a choke. Clearly Kenny and co-host were not actually looking at the sports media, and instead pulling that sexism argument out of thin air.  Bill Archer on Big Soccer also made that exact same argument, again without any basis.

And then there is Jemele Hill of ESPN, a “writer” of such shocking ignorance that she doesn’t know what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution actually says.  Ms. Hill, no doubt trying to be edgy, also used the word choke,  Now to be fair to Ms. Hill, if you go to ESPN for quality commentary, you are bound for disappointment (with the occasional exception*.)

Taking apart a Jemele Hill’s column argument is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Her writing displays nothing except intellectually laziness and woeful ignorance.  I don’t want to pick on her, but her latest misinformed screed uses all the same arguments being circulated by people who should (and should not) know better about why the US women lost.  They did not choke.  Did the pressure get to them?  Maybe, but losing a one goal lead, even it losing it twice is not choking in football.  Choking in football is losing a 4-0 halftime lead in a league match when the title is on the line.  Choking in football is losing a 3-0 halftime lead in the final of the Champions League to a team that would not have even qualified for the next year’s tournament had it not won (oh, no wait, that’s actually Liverpool fighting bravely, not Milan choking.)  And as painful as it is for me to say, choking is losing 4-0 in the Champions League final you are expected to win because your opponent has been hamstrung by suspensions and injuries.  A one goal is extremely tenuous in football.  One error and it’s gone.  Unfortunately for the US, the back line had a bad game and made two very critical errors.  That’s not choking; that’s football.

Ms. Hill’s writes

If the U.S. men’s soccer team had been ranked No. 1 in the world and lost in the World Cup final to a team that hadn’t beaten the Americans in 25 tries, what would we be saying about them in the aftermath?

They choked.

Ms. Hill does not bother to hide her ignorance of the game in the least.  Anyone who knows a damn thing about international football knows that the FIFA rankings mean absolutely nothing.  The rankings are a way of ensuring that teams from the most historically successful teams do not play each other in the early rounds of international tournaments and qualifications.  They are ridiculous.  Right now England is #4.  No one, not even English, believe that England is the 4th best team in the world.  It’s a convoluted system that no one takes seriously.  Even when the US Women were ranked #1, everyone who knew better did not think they were the best team in the world.

As for Japan, it’s not like all 25 of those previous matches came in the months just before this World Cup.  They go back over two decades to when the landscape of women’s football looked far different from how it does now.  See, Ms. Hill what happens is that over time teams improve when they have aspirations of breaking into the elite.  Often this is inspired by not wanting to get beat 22 out of 25 times and drawing the other three.  But Ms. Hill, let me translate this into terminology that you presumably are more familiar with:  The #4 seed beat the #1 seed.  The #4 had beaten the #2 seed in a previous round, thereby becoming the darlings of the tournament.  It happens all the time and everyone talks about the Cinderella side’s spectacular tournament, not the bigger side’s choke.

Actually, except for the No. 1 ranking thing, there’s no need for the hypothetical. That’s essentially what a lot of people said about our men’s national team when it lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final last month despite leading 2-0 in the early going.

Again, you’re wrong.  What people were saying about the US men was not that they choked, but that they were a talentless bunch of hacks who could neither defend nor attack and were coached by a toadying yes-man who plays favorites and lacks tactical acuity.  Not that I ever said that,  Everyone knew going into the Gold Cup final that Mexico were the better side; the shock of the match was that the US took a 2-0 lead.  What people said afterwards was the instead of trying to get a third goal, the US should have bunkered down and defended.  As a result, the US lost the lead 13 minutes later.  No one accused the US of choking, we accused them of having no grasp of basic tactics and going stagnant because of from a manager who had passed his shelf life.

Also, Ms. Hill, the Gold Cup is not the World Cup.  If the US men were to get to the World Cup final, I would be thrilled if they lost on penalties after a hard-fought match.  It would be an incredible improvement.

Yet in the aftermath of Sunday’s thrilling Women’s World Cup finale, most of us seem to be picking up the pompoms instead of taking a critical look at why the U.S. lost to Japan, an inferior team that the Americans dominated for most of the match.

Perhaps it is because Japan were not actually inferior.  The US played a better game, but Japan never gave up, and they were the better side all tournament long.  By your logic the US should have lost to Brazil or France.  Football is not a fair game, and sometimes better sides lose.

From a survey of the coverage and analysis in the mainstream media, you would think the U.S. women’s national team had just accomplished something extraordinary rather than suffer what should be considered a devastating loss.

In the last two World Cups, the US lost in the semifinals.  In 2007, the US suffered its worst loss ever, a 4-0 defeat to Brazil.  US fans still have nightmares about this.  Coming in second is actually an improvement, especially for a program that had been heavily criticized in the months leading up to the World Cup.

Instead, the U.S women are being praised for their gutsiness. Because the match against Japan was the highest-rated soccer telecast ever on an ESPN network and was the most-tweeted-about event in Twitter history, the U.S. women’s World Cup experience is being viewed as a watershed moment for women’s sports.

Ms. Hill, I’m not sure if you knew this, but people don’t actually watch sports because they know the results ahead of time.  They watch the results because they are rooting for their team.  By the way, you may not find this interesting, but one of the biggest Twitter-using countries is Japan.  Although this doesn’t conform to you theory, the people of Japan may have been on Twitter during the match too.

Uh, let’s slow our roll.

Indeed, this was a terrific moment for women’s sports. It proved that female athletes are every bit as capable of captivating millions of sports fans as men.

But the reaction to the U.S. loss doesn’t seem progressive. It feels like stereotypical coddling of female athletes.

It seems patronizing to view the loss to Japan as historical or groundbreaking. The Americans are far too good to be patted on the back and given the we’re-just-happy-you-made-it treatment.

Is it possible, just possible that we can be proud of our team’s performance even if they didn’t win?  Is everything either victory or shame?  Ms. Hill, I hate to tell you this, but other countries play football, they play it well, and they have been playing it for as long if not longer than the US.  The rest of the world has caught up to the US, which gained an advantage from Title IX.  That advantage has come to an end, and unless the US changes its program, the US will not make the final again.  New Zealand gets their first draw ever, and they do a celebratory haka.  Our team gets to the final and barely loses and derided as chokers?  If the US men ever did what the US women did this year, I would be dancing in the streets.

Only a person looking for sexism would see a double standard in being proud of your team.

Keep in mind that the Americans were among the favorites to win the World Cup. Once the host team from Germany — perhaps the biggest favorite — was eliminated and the U.S. took care of Brazil in the quarterfinals, this tournament became the Americans’ to lose.

So why is everyone acting like the U.S. won something?

This isn’t a slight against Japan, an enormous underdog in the World Cup. The Japanese deserve a ton of credit for overcoming constant U.S. pressure on the pitch with a pair of come-from-behind goals. And when you consider that their country is coping with recovery from a devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was heartwarming to see their fans rewarded with the championship.

Not a slight against Japan?  I don’t know any other way to read this?  You flat-out called them inferior.  Basically what you are saying is that if Germany, Brazil, or the United States didn’t win, then it must be some crap team rather than the fourth best team in the world, and a side that has taken the women’s game to stylistic places that no one expected.

You clearly don’t watch football.  If you did, you would know a basic truth that all true fans know through bitter experience: there is no such thing as a guaranteed win, especially in the international game.

But let’s not pretend the U.S. didn’t whiff a huge opportunity. It let Japan hang around for far too long and eventually blew two leads. And other than Abby Wambach, the Americans looked shaken during the penalty kicks to break the 2-2 tie.

If true equality means giving women’s sports the same sort of analysis with which we scrutinize the men, then it shouldn’t be considered crass, unknowledgeable or unpatriotic to suggest or think the USWNT choked.

Male athletes and men’s teams are routinely judged against expectations. For the past month, for example, LeBron James has been vilified for his performance in the NBA Finals.

Some of the criticism directed at LeBron is mean-spirited, but a lot of it is justified. You can’t rationalize his disappearing act in the Finals, even though the Miami Heat came within two wins of the championship. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t form their trio in Miami to finish in second place.

So if James can choke, why can’t the U.S. women, who haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, be considered choke artists, too?

Perhaps the reason that LeBron James has gotten as much criticism as he has gotten has less to do with him losing and more to do with the fact that James had that distasteful spectacle of a show (aided in large part by your own ESPN) in which he ridiculously announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach, squandered all the good will people had toward him (especially in Cleveland), cried racism when he was criticized, made fun of a final round opponent who was very much respected around the country (and who gracious despite that), and generally acted like the pampered jerk that everyone hates in professional athletes.  As far as I know, no one in the women’s game has gone to those extremes.

Bob Bradley, the embattled U.S. men’s soccer coach, has his decisions constantly second-guessed; and U.S. women’s head coach Pia Sundhage should be facing criticism, too, because her team was unable to close out an inferior team. Doesn’t Sundhage deserve some blame for the U.S. team’s seeming inability to match Japan’s incredible will?

Bob Bradley’s team underachieved in a major way at the World Cup, not just according to the expectations of US fans, but also according to the governing body of United States soccer.  That’s why they looked for a replacement.  It was only after they could not come to terms with said replacement, that they kept Bradley.

As for Sundhage, she is facing criticism, but unlike Bradley, she actually won a world title, the 2008 Olympics.  Her record has as US coach has been stellar.  And, as I said before she improved on the US’s prior two World Cup performances.  Although some have blamed her for penalties (and there is a point), the truth is that penalty kicks are as much luck as nerve.  Criticizing a coach for a penalty shoot out is just not fair.

Of course if you actually watched football, Ms. Hill, you would know that.

Oh, and I thought you weren’t trying to take anything away from Japan.

Elevating women’s sports doesn’t always mean being obligated to run amok with praise when women’s teams are defeated. Female athletes already struggle to receive the same recognition and coverage as men, and whatever progress they’ve made is undermined when we pamper women after they lose. It sends the message that female athletes can’t handle scrutiny like men.

I’m not saying the U.S. women deserve extreme criticism. I’m not saying Sundhage should be fired, or that the women’s legacy was somehow hurt by the loss to Japan.

But our expectations of them shouldn’t be lowered just because they’re women.

Actually everything that you are claiming you’re not saying, you’re saying.  In fact you have contradicted yourself so many times in one article that your head must be spinning.  If the US had gone out in the quarterfinals or in the group stage, believe me Pia Sundhage would have been fired the next day.  But she got the US to the final where they unfortunately lost a great match, possibly the greatest the women’s game has ever seen.  There is no shame in that.  It hurts, but it is not shameful.

What there is shame in is lazy thinking and ignorance masquerading as a call for equality.  Ms. Hill, your ignorance of football is shocking for someone writing a column on it, and the thinking you have displayed is incredibly lazy.  But don’t worry, I am not calling your ignorant and lazy because you are a woman.  I’m saying it because your writing is ignorant and lazy.

Footnotes:

* ESPN’s European football site Soccernet has much better writers and commentators, but I consider that separate from ESPN.

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Lessons Learned From The Women’s World Cup

One final post about the 2011 World Cup to sum up a few of the lessons that we learned from this tournament.

The gap is not closing; it has closed.  Japan, whose only prior decent World Cup result was the 1995 quarterfinals, won.  France, for so long a non-contender, came in 4th.  Only three teams scored four goals in a single match, and there were no humiliating 7-0. 8-0, 11-0 blowouts like in previous years.  The traditional minnows did themselves proud–New Zealand got its first point ever, and Nigeria beat Canada while holding France and Germany to merely one goal apiece.  Equatorial Guinea played extremely well, scored two goals, and introduced the world to unique defending techniques.  Even the two worst teams of the tournament, North Korea and Colombia, each managed a draw (against each other.)  In contrast, Norway, one of the greats of the early game, have fallen into mediocrity and will probably never recover their former glory.

Teams from Asia can dominate this competition for some time to come.  Japan won, a young Australia side reached its second consecutive quarterfinal, and South Korea is knocking at the door (no doubt fueled by a desire to beat Japan.)  Maybe China will want to support their own once-great program (again, no doubt fueled by a desire to beat Japan.)  Asia has arrived.

Lightning strikes twice.  Apparently the lightning that was responsible for the North Korean loss to the United States was also responsible for their positive doping result.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Brazil is the team of the future… and always will be.  Brazil is far and away the most talented squad and boasts the best player in the world, but the CBF, Brazil’s football association, does not care about them.  Therefore the team does not get together until just before major tournaments, gets incompetent coaches, and does not even have their own kits.  Every other team in the tournament was wary of Brazil and scared of Marta, but in the end Brazil were undone as much by the CBF as by the US.  On a related note, I got my answer to why Spain do not have a good women’s side, and it is even more deflating than what is going on with Brazil. When a manager who wins nothing keeps a job for nearly three decades, that reveals an apathy bordering on malice.

Defense cannot win tournaments, but it can lose them.  I have said this before but it bears some repeating.  A defender is really in a no-win situation.  When they do well they are generally ignored, and when they are noticed, it is usually because they are being scapegoated.  A striker can miss 99 of 100 chances, but that one chance could win the match, and all is forgiven.  A defender can brilliantly prevent 99 out of 100 chances, yet that one missed opportunity can lose the match, and then the knives come out.  Thus it was yesterday with the US.  The match never should have gotten to penalties.  The US had the match won twice and lost it twice because the defense failed twice.  Even though the US offense blew chance after chance in the first half hour, the defense still bears the lion’s share of the blame.

I know more about this World Cup than FIFA does.  Have you seen FIFA’s All Star Team?  Maybe someone can explain the logic to me, because to my eyes there are some ridiculous selections there, particularly in defense.  Shannon Boxx?  Saskia Bartusiak?  Laura Georges?  Érika?  Elise Kellond-Knight?  Admittedly, I put Faye White on my team, but I recanted and apologized yesterday.  My team of the tournament looks far more like Jeff Kassouf’s than FIFA’s, and since I trust Kassouf for insight into the women’s game far more than I do FIFA, I feel redeemed.

Homare Sawa belongs on the Greatest Ever list.  If the last World Cup was the real beginning of Marta’s legacy, this World Cup ended Sawa’s in a fairy tale finish.  Women’s football has had it’s fair share of great leaders, but Sawa is second to none.  She was her team’s engine and their inspiration.  Whenever Japan were in trouble, she worked some of her magic, and led them to victory.  Every award that she won and will win are completely deserved.  Now if only I can fit her on my Greatest Ever team.

North American teams need a rethink.  As I write this, I am listening to Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc on World Football Daily.  She had a fascinating take on the World Cup and on Canada’s plight, but something needs to change after Canada’s woeful tournament.  The US had a far better tournament than Canada, but the signs are ominous.  Although they outplayed Japan, against Sweden, Brazil, and France the US were the technically deficient side.  In both the US and Canada there are problems from the ground up, and as Canada showed, without major corrections there will be humiliations in World Cups to come.  As for Mexico, without Maribel Domínguez that team’s future is in limbo.  Mexico have players with great technique, but one wonders if they can pull it together without their leader.

In football, no one is invulnerable.*  In retrospect, perhaps Japan’s upset of Germany is not quite as momentous as it seemed at the time.  Nevertheless, Germany were the heavy favorites, especially at home.  They looked awful in the group stages, and their result can be described only as a major failure.  Silvia Neid has, for the first time, come under pressure although I believe she is keeping her post.  The legacy of Birgit Prinz is in tatters, and for the first time in a while, the reputation of Germany’s women’s team has come into question.

The 2015 World Cup will be fantastic.  Or it won’t be.  This World Cup was the most competitive ever.  The top teams of each continent are much closer in quality than they ever have been.  If 2015 were another 16-team tournament, one would expect the quality level to stay the same.  However, the tournament is increasing to 24 teams, and one wonders if lower-ranked teams from South America, Africa, and Asia will be able to continue the trend.**

Enjoy the players we have.  Americans cannot live in the past, Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, Briana Scurry, and Brandi Chastain are long gone.  Now we have Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe, Ali Krieger, and Heather O’Reilly.  They too are great players, and deserve our admiration.

The women’s game is worth watching.  The proof is in the pudding.  The tournament was fantastic, the quality of football was excellent.  Support your local club; the players will love you back.

Footnotes:

* For further emphasis about how no one is invulnerable in football check out the Copa America results from this weekend.  Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile all lost in the quarterfinals to Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, and Venezuela respectively. The gap among the South American men has also closed.

**  In particular I am thinking of Argentina, Chile, Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa, all of whom have a terrific chance for qualifying for 2015, but whose international record is spotty at best.  To a lesser extent, I also wonder about Asian teams outside of East Asia/Australia, although I suspect none will qualify for 2015.

Women’s World Cup Day 15: Rising Sun

The final of the World Cup saw the Japan beat the US on penalty kicks 12 years after the 1999 final, proving that I should never ever make predictions again.

Japan v. United States

The problem with following sports is that when your favorite player or team loses you get irrationally depressed.  Chances are you don’t know the player(s) except maybe through media such as Twitter.  Most likely you have more loyalty to the team than the players do.  Unless you work for the team, and very few of us do, the result on the field has no bearing on your daily life.  Yet being a fan is like being in love, and therefore you invest a part of your heart and soul into your team’s performance.  When they win you rejoice; when they lose you ache with pain.  It’s a communal love shared with the players, but even more so with the other fans who for that instant become an extended family.  There is no good reason for this.  It’s not logical.  it just is how it is.

Today the United States Women’s National Team lost in the World Cup final to Japan on penalty kicks.  Technically they drew 2-2, but only one team lifted the trophy.  I, like my fellow fans, share the tremendous sadness of the US Women, because I too love them.  This is the worst I have ever felt after a football match.  The only team I have ever been this invested in is Barcelona who generally win, but I cannot imagine I would feel any worse if Barcelona lost.  I am not the only fan who is depressed today; Julie Foudy looked near tears afterwards.

Another reason for the tremendous sadness is because I worry about the fate of the WPS.  While a US win may not have saved it, one wonders if the loss is a deathblow.  I hope not.  The US Women played a tremendous tournament, fought well in a tough match, possibly the greatest match women’s football has ever seen, and came up just short in the end.  They have given us far more than the US Men ever have, yet MLS is secure while the WPS is not.  It just doesn’t seem fair.  For all the attention that the US Women got over the past few weeks (God bless ESPN), one wonders if that attention will be refocused onto the league, which does not have major network exposure.  For myself, I will gladly buy an Alex Morgan jersey if they make it in a men’s size, but I am a focus group of one.  The sad thing is that there is no reason the WPS should be flailing.  If anything, this World Cup has shown that women’s football can be of very high quality.  At the international level, the women can put on a better show than the men.  Yet for a whole host of reasons, the women’s game cannot get the same kind of attention and respect.  If that is not enough to make one cry, I don’t know what is.

On to the actual match.

In as much as anything is fair in football, this was a fair enough result.  What the Unites States did to Brazil, Japan did to the United States.  The US had chance after chance in the beginning but could not convert those chances.  Japan fell behind twice but came back twice.  One cannot talk about US tenacity–getting outplayed and still fighting for the win–without giving that same credit to Japan.  They beat the #1, #2, and #5 ranked teams in the world.  The entire tournament Japan played with a style that up until this point was practically unknown in women’s football.  They are the first team from Asia to win a World Cup.  They are the first team not from Europe or the Americas to even win any World Cup, men’s or women’s.  Samurai Blue have nothing on Nadeshiko Japan, and no Japanese player, male or female, will ever have Homare Sawa’s legacy.  Givenf the horrors Japan has faced in the past five months, how can you not be a good sport and feel at least a little happy for Japan?  Even through the tears, there is a small smile.

Both teams would have been worthy winners.  It was an incredible match, from beginning to end, but once Sawa got Japan’s second goal near the end of extra time though (thereby earning the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, and probably World Player of the Year come December), it felt like Japan was going to win.  There was something in the air, and the US seemed deflated.  Sure enough, in the penalty kicks the US fell apart.  Penalty kicks are a cruel but necessary way to end a knockout match.  Most teams are unlucky to go through one.  The US had to go through two.  Penalty kicks are as much a matter of luck as skill, and this time luck was not with the US.

Although the officiating in this tournament was suspect tonight was very good (a pleasant change from last year’s “Three Stooges” reenactment.)  Everything about this final was pretty clean, save for Azusa Iwashimizu’s red card, and even that was very much in the spirit of the game.  She sacrificed herself to save her team.  There is something noble about that, aggravating as it is.  But that was the story of the match.  The Japanese defense saved the team as it did against Sweden and Germany.  If I could remake my team of the tournament, I would change one position: Saki Kumagai instead of Faye White; Kumagai kept Abby Wambach at bay for almost the entire match.  Another person who deserves to be singled out is Japan’s goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who was stellar during the penalty kicks.

For all the Nike ads about pressure, for all the pressure that the US overcame in the past few weeks, tonight they faltered under the pressure.  The US outplayed Japan, they even dominated possession (or so it seemed), their record against Japan is ridiculously good, and they had the lead twice.  Yet, the pressure of being so close to victory did them in.  In the first half hour the US could not convert any of their many chances.  Some of this was due to positioning, some of it was due to plain bad luck.  But both Japanese goals came because the defense, which was rock solid for most of the tournament, fell to that pressure.  Spare a thought for Christie Rampone.  That’s a tough way to end a distinguished career.

One person who cannot be blamed is Pia Sundhage, who was also holding back tears.  This entire tournament she has done nothing but instill confidence in her side and out-coach her opposition.  If not for her, the US would never have gotten past Brazil or France.  Today the result could have gone either way.  She did not control the penalty shoot-out and had no reason to think that her players would not be able to perform.  If she does not keep her job, there is something seriously wrong with the USSF.  We US fans owe her a debt of gratitude; she took a team in conflict and brought them an Olympic title and a World Cup silver medal.  Thank you, Pia Sundhage, you are in our hearts.

If there is one bright spot for this US team, it is the knowledge that we can continue to be competitive in years to come, especially with players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.  Given the way the US played today, I have faith in the future.  Perhaps in four years, the US will finally take back the World Cup.  One hopes so; these players need to get the monkey of 1999 of their backs.  Mia Hamm has long retired, and US Women’s football has a new galaxy of stars.  It is up to us Americans to recognize and appreciate them.  They have merited our love and affection; let’s give it to them.

So now I am going to go cry myself to sleep.  Thank you, dear readers for being with me on this journey.  You have made me feel like a real writer.  I hope you come back when I write about other things, whether football related or no.

The Awards: 

FIFA’s Team of the Tournament:  See for yourself.  Some of those choices (and some of the absences) baffle me.  But never think that FIFA choices make sense.

Golden Glove: Hope Solo

Golden Boot: Homare Sawa; Silver Boot: Marta; Bronze Boot: Abby Wambach

Golden Ball: Homare Sawa; Silver Ball:Abby Wambach; Bronze Ball: Hope Solo

Fair Play Trophy: Japan

Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord

Women’s World Cup Final: A Preview

A longer post will follow, but I just wanted to say two things:

1.  Congratulations to the Japanese, particularly Homare Sawa.  You have done your nation proud, and I hope you get a hero’s welcome when you get back.

2.  I am depressed.

Women’s World Cup Day 14: How Swede It Is

The third place match saw a brutal, artless match between France and Sweden.  Sweden won it, but the real surprise was my own reaction to Sonia Bompastor’s blatant and unpunished cheating: I wanted Sweden to win.  And dance.

Sweden v. France

The match that no one wants to see lived down to the anti-hype.  This was a snoozer.  If you ever plan on watching the 2011 World Cup matches at a later date, skip this one.  It wasn’t the worst match of the tournament (surely nothing could beat Colombia v. North Korea), but it was anticlimactic, rather than an interesting Germany v. Uruguay type match from last year.  Unless you hate the French team in general and Sonia Bompastor specifically, just watch the highlights.  Sweden won 2-1.

Despite the fact that France was the revelation of the World Cup, since elimination the French side has been doing their best since to erase that good will.  Louisa Necib told every reporter who would listen that France were the better side and deserved to win (there’s that “d” word again), and coach Bruno Bini had the audacity to say that he would rather his team lose beautifully than win ugly–a direct attack on the US.  No doubt this insult was also a way to avoid responsibility for being outcoached by Pia Sundhage and for his horrible substitutions in that match, which swung the momentum decisively in the US’s favor.*  Any team that falls back on that beautiful loser nonsense is just kidding itself.  All those great teams that never won the World Cup (Hungary ’54, Holland ’74, Brazil ’82) would have gladly given up their beautiful style for the win–even if Johan Cruyff will not admit it.  France went into the US match positive that they were going to win.  They cheered when the US beat Brazil because they feared Marta and Brazil and not the US.  That disrespect cost them.

France bought into its own hype.  Yes, they have style, but whenever they faced a team who could out-muscle them, they folded.  First was Germany, when France, thanks to Bini, did not even try to win.  In the semifinal, France fell apart when the US did not fold under their pressure.  Today, Sweden too was not overawed by France’s style, and used their superior strength to beat them.  As well as France did in getting to the semifinals, one should also remember that Les Bleues are, along with Canada and Equatorial Guinea, one of only three teams to have lost three matches at this tournament.

Another problem with Bini’s decision-making was highlighted today.  Throughout the entire tournament, France’s biggest weak spot was the goalkeeper.  Bérangère Sapowicz is not a national team goalkeeper, her decision-making is questionable, and she is particularly poor in the air (that she publicly announced that is shocking but accurate.)  She was not France’s first choice keeper; that is Lyon’s Sarah Bouhaddi.  Since the beginning of the tournament the ESPN commentators have been vaguely hinting about personality conflicts that kept Bouhaddi out of the squad, but never actually said what they were.  Today, Kate Markgraf finally stopped beating around the bush.  Bouhaddi and French captain Sandrine Soubeyrand hate each other, and Bini left the keeper out.  As a result France played the tournament with two sub-par goalkeepers (Sapowicz and Céline Deville who filled in after Sapowicz’s red card against Germany and her injury today.)**

The French need to get off their high horse.  They are not above some unethical or rough play, particularly when Sonia Bompastor is on the pitch.  Bompastor is the best left back in the tournament, but she is also a dirty, dirty player.  In the quarterfinals Kelly White almost punched her.  Today, Bompastor tackled Josefine Öqvist, kicked her, and then put on a show of pain when Öqvist retaliated.  Öqvist was entirely wrong, that is without question.  You never, ever retaliate when you are being goaded like that; your antagonist knows that she will get away with it and you won’t.  That is exactly what happened to Öqvist.  Sort of.  Öqvist was red-carded in the 68th minute for losing her head.  Bompastor was not disciplined, but I think Bompastor did not reckon with the crowd reaction.  She got the Marta treatment only unlike Marta, she actually deserved it.  The crowd was brutal, and I don’t think Bompastor was prepared to be the villain.  She was almost invisible afterwards and furious after the match.

It is important to remember though that France did not lose this match, Sweden won it.  Despite going down to 10 players, they never lost their head and regained the lead in the 82nd minute thanks to a beautiful strike from Swedish defender Marie Hammarström.  Now Sweden have a bronze medal to go along with their bronze from 1991 and the silver from 2003.  Lotta Schelin (who, being the lone Swedish Lyon player, imported Lyon’s stupid goal celebration to her Swedish side) scored the opener, continued her general attacking excellence, if not prolific scoring.  Schelin has been Sweden’s best player this tournament, and probably will be on the FIFA Team of the Tournament (she was an alternate for my team.)

Sweden had an excellent tournament.  Regardless of who wins, Sweden will have a better tournament record than the team that loses the final.  If the US wins, then they can (and will) claim that they beat the best side, with the inference that they were better.  Sweden have not been the most thrilling of sides, but they have been one of the most effective.  For that alone, their bronze medal is richly deserved.  Now please just make the goal dance go away.

Footnotes:

* What is it with French coaches?  They become so philosophical that they border on crazy.  Bini is merely the latest example.  Raymond Domenech (who used astrology charts to choose his lineups) should never have been let near a football pitch.  The only reason his 2006 France team did as well as it did is because Zidane took control of the team and dragged them to the finals.  Without Zidane the team fell apart.  Arsene Wenger, one of France’s best coaches, has also in recent years been afflicted by the beautiful loser syndrome which is why Arsenal is no longer a title contenders.

** Also according to Markgraf, another reason Bouhaddi was kept out was because of her abilities to inflict horrific injuries such as the one she inflicted on Swedish legend Hanna Ljungberg, an injury that helped end Ljungberg’s career (something the Swedes have not forgotten.)

Women’s World Cup: Final Predictions (I’m Almost Afraid To Say Anything)

I have now been wrong on three of four quarterfinals and both semifinals.  I have to be right sometime, right?

Sweden v. France

The match that no one cares about.  The irony is that the third place match is often of higher quality than the final (see last year’s World Cup) because there is so much less on the line.  As  a result both sides can play their game without really worrying about losing anything other than pride.  By virtue of being the two highest placed European sides at the tournament, Sweden and France will both go to the London along with the team from Great Britain (England).

This match will be interesting because it is a study in contrasts, both on and off the pitch.  Sweden are a team full of physically imposing women who play a muscular and effective game but with little artistry.  France are a team of smaller women but who play an aesthetically pleasing game but sometimes lack a killer instinct.  Sweden are better in the back, and France are better in the front.  I am not sure that France are the better side right now, but I am sure that France are a team of the future who will only get better while Sweden have hit their peak.  Perhaps the decline of Sweden will not be as dramatic as those of Norway and Denmark (whose decline started before the first Women’s World Cup), but Sweden are being passed by and will continue to be passed by as women’s football grows in popularity around the world.  Sweden however, have what the French (and almost every other team in the tournament) want–a stable league with regular support and attendance.

This will be France’s last chance to make a statement in this tournament, and more importantly, a statement to their countrymen back home who couldn’t both to show up to support them.  (At the match against the US, the stadium looked very empty.  It turned out that while the US had tremendous support, French fans just did not show up despite the nude photos.)  It’s a shame because the embarrassment the French men caused at last year’s World Cup would never happen with Les Bleues.  They did their country proud, and their country showed it does not deserve the team.

Nevertheless, I think France will pull it out.  I hope so, because I do not want to watch the return of Sweden’s goal dance.

United States v. Japan

Fun fact: This will be the first time the winner will have lost a match in the group stage.  It sometimes happens at the men’s World Cup (last year for example) but had never happened with the women.  Once again, this is proof the gap is closing, and the fact that either the US (who lost to Sweden) or Japan (who lost to England) will win is a good thing.

This is the match I am afraid to call for so many reasons.  Japan were not expected to do this well given the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown; they thought this tournament would be a warm-up for the Olympics.  Getting to the finals, for the first time even (let alone out of the group stage for the first time since 1995 when Nadeshiko Japan made the quarterfinals), is a tremendous triumph in and of itself.

To my mind, Japan have been the team of the tournament.  They play as one, and their style is amazingly fluid.  For the first time they have shown an aggression that most didn’t think they had.  (This was also true of China in 1999.)  Japan are extremely dangerous on set pieces.  In the past two matches, their defense has been almost rock solid, especially when they withstood the German barrage.  In Homare Sawa they have a true leader and a legend of the game.  When Japan lose possession, they work hard to get it back; their pressing game is top-notch.

The US lack such good collective skills but more than make up for that with tremendous individual talent and a strong team bond, especially with Hope Solo at the back and Abby Wambach at the front.  I do not envy Pia Sundhage.  She has to decide whether to stay with the group that brought the US to the final or juggle around some of the parts that have not been working (Amy Rodriguez, for example, has had a tournament to forget.)  The US are not going to have the majority of possession, but the US, when everything is working as it should, also play an effective game.  With the exception of left back Amy LePeilbet, the defense has been quite solid although LePeilbet has steadily improved since the debacle against Sweden (she is one of the best center backs in the WPS.)  The US have a never-say-die attitude, but I wonder if in this instance that will be negated by a Japanese team that has come so far and for whom a victory would be so meaningful.  It is true that the US has a ridiculously good record against Japan (including two wins against in World Cup warm ups), but history is not destiny, especially when facing a team on a mission.  The US had a ridiculously good record against Brazil in 2007, but that didn’t stop Marta and company from handing the US its worst loss ever.

While the Japanese are on a mission, it is important to forget that the US are too.  First, this team has lived in the shadow of 1999.  Despite the Nike “Pressure Makes Us” ads, it cannot feel good to know that until the World Cup is won, this US side will always be considered second-rate no matter how many Olympic gold medals they win.  The fact that Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Brandi Chastain are in Germany (not to mention Kate Markgraf and Kristine Lilly who do not loom quite as large) only makes the ghosts of 1999 more haunting. A World Cup victory will make them legends, and future teams will have to live up to the 2011 side.

Furthermore, the US players know that the fate of the WPS lies in the balance.  It’s not so much that a World Cup win will assure the success of the WPS (although ticket sales did go up for the Boston Breakers following the success in the knockout rounds), but a loss will certainly not help.  The US women are very aware of that.  Japan too have a league that needs support, but it is not to the same dire extent that the WPS faces, in part because it is not professional.

So who will win?  Gosh, I have no idea.  If the ball stays on the ground, Japan.  If the US can play an effective aerial game, the US.  I think it will come down to who wants it more, and that is probably the US.  What the hell.  I can’t always be wrong.  Right?

 

Women’s World Cup: Team Of The Tournament

In the days before the final (and third place match), there is little to write about, and I am not quite ready to risk predictions today. Instead I am going to pick a team of the tournament (which I think will remain the same even after the final two matches.)  I went with a 4-3-3 even though no team actually used that formation.

Agree?  Disagree?  Want to give your own team of the tournament?  Please leave comments.

Team of the Tournament

Hope Solo

Ali Krieger – Christie Rampone – Faye White – Sonia Bompastor

Camille Abily – Homare Sawa – Louisa Necib

Genoveva Añonma – Abby Wambach – Marta

Super Sub: Megan Rapinoe

Alternates:

Precious Dede, Ali Riley, Lauren Cheney, Lotta Schelin, Cristiane, Kerstin Garefrekes, Maribel Domínguez, Heather O’Reilly, Aya Miyama

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is the best in the world, and in my opinion the best there ever was.  She saved the Americans time and time again, never more so than in the quarterfinal match against Brazil.  Her only competition, and this is a distant second, is Precious Dede of Nigeria, who let in a grand total of only two goals the entire tournament–one to France and one to Germany.  Not a bad showing.

Right Back:  This was actually the hardest position for me to pick, because there were so many good candidates.  Ali Krieger was the class of the tournament, but not far behind her was Ali Riley of New Zealand who was the brightest spot of a developing team. (and who is also generally excellent for the Western New York Flash.)  Special mention to Equatoguinean right back Bruna, she of the now infamous Hand of Oh My God!  It is not that Bruna was a class above everyone else consistently (hence she did not make my alternates bench), but her man-marking of Marta was a class for most of the match.  She shadowed Marta so effectively, that she kept the Brazilian quiet until the very end.  How effective was it?  When Marta went to talk to her coach, Bruna followed her, (and since Bruna speaks Portuguese, it prevented any kind of communication.)

Center Backs:  I admit the choices here were somewhat sentimental.  It was hard to choose center backs because unlike the outside backs, center backs tend to get singled out more for their few mistakes than the (many more) times they successfully stop the attack.  The center back takes more abuse from the goalkeeper than anyone else because they are always at the back (unlike the full backs who charge down the flanks).  Center back is not a glamorous position, but it is an extremely important one.  Being a center back requires intelligence and leadership.  The center backs keep the shape of the defense, and it is no surprise that center backs make the best captains.  With that in mind, my center backs were Christie Rampone and Faye White, two very successful veterans.  Few could argue with my choice of Rampone, who has been a rock at the back, but White is tougher to justify.  Overlook the missed penalty kick that will probably haunt her forever.  The truth is that England’s defense was very good, and White, as captain, was responsible for that.  England just came up short against a far superior team, and even that superior team only won because of the roulette wheel that is penalty kicks not because they broke down White’s defense (and she was hobbled by the end of that match.)

Left Back:  Right back offered too many good choices, but there is only one choice for left back: Sonia Bompastor.  She was the only good part of France’s defense, and her charges down the left were a terror to all teams that opposed her.  She was also the only person to truly beat Hope Solo on goal, a goal that made Solo furious.  Bompastor is the best left back in the women’s game.

Right Midfield: This was another really tough position.  Camille Abily scored only one goal this tournament.  Nevertheless, her contributions were tremendous to an excellent French side.  It was very hard to decide between Abily, Heather O’Reilly, and Kerstin Garefrekes, but in my opinion, Abily just ekes out O’Reilly.  O’Reilly was very important to the US side; when she sat out with an injury, the US lost.  Garefrekes was  one of the few bright spots of an imploding Germany.  Blame Silvia Neid and Birgit Prinz, but Garefrekes was blameless.

Central Midfield:  Homare Sawa.  Because Japan are such a great team, and each player makes the others better, it is very difficult to separately honor any of the Japanese players individually, and I have done them a disservice by not including more on this list.  One Japanese player stands head and shoulder above everyone though: Sawa.  She is the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual engine behind her team’s machine, and she is the player of the tournament.  She is the only player in the tournament thus far to score a hat trick, and her assist for Karina Maruyama’s goal gave Japan its most important win ever.  Alas, there is only one choice, because there are so many good contenders.  Lauren Cheney deserves some appreciation; when she is at center, she is one of the most creative US players.  (The problem was that she often started on the left and then moved into center, which is why she is not more competitive on this team.)  Had Germany done better, Simon Laudehr would be on my list somewhere.  Give a little love for the veterans Formiga and Kelly White who are playing in their last tournament; if there were a lifetime achievement award, both would get it.  Finally,some mention should go to Kim Kulig of Germany and Nilla Fischer of Sweden, who proved that when the starting center midfielder is not playing, a team can go south very quickly (especially when the opponent is Japan.)

Left Midfield:  This is cheating a little bit I suppose.  Louisa Necib was an attacking midfielder for most of the tournament, but she is one of the breakout stars of this tournament, and I had to include her.  Therefore I am moving her to left with the understanding that at some point in the second half Megan Rapinoe, another break out star, will come in for her.  Necib is one of the most graceful players out there, and was repeatedly compared to her countryman Zinedine Zidane who is also of Algerian heritage, as was repeated ad nauseam.  Hopefully she will not get crushed under the weight of that comparison because Necib has talent, creativity, and ball striking ability to spare.  Rapinoe lost her starting spot, but rather than sulk a la Prinz she became the best substitute of the tournament.  She was responsible for both Abby Wambach’s tying goal against Brazil, and Alex Morgan’s beautiful chip goal against France, and she scored a goal of her own against Colombia (Born in the USA!.)  Another great player is Aya Miyama whose mastered the art of the set piece.  How the Japanese produce such consistently good players in that department is beyond me.

Right Wing:  One of the other major breakout stars of this tournament was Genoveva Añonma.  She only scored two goals, a brace against Australia, but they were her team’s only goals.  That pretty much describes Equatorial Guinea.  Añonma kept that team afloat.  She was their everything.  Even though Equatorial Guinea was eliminated, Añonma announced herself as one of the world’s attackers.

Center Forward: Abby Wambach.  It’s hard to remember now that coming into the tournament, Abby Wambach could not score a goal to save her life.  This was exacerbated in the match against Colombia where attempt after attempt refused to go in no matter how well she struck the ball or how fortuitous the opportunity.  It was not until after her should-have-been-illegal, off-the-shoulder goal against Sweden that the floodgates opened.  It’s not  that Wambach scored so many goals though as much as when she scored: the tying goal against Brazil and the winner against France.  Wambach’s ability to carry her team is second only to Sawa.  There is no one else who could be the center forward.  There are however, honorable mentions.  Maribel Domínguez and Lotta Schelin, although not high scorers carried their teams.  Domínguez is a particularly poignant case.  If she were ten years younger, Mexico would be a force in the foreseeable future.  Hopefully the team will be able to live in the house Domínguez built, but unfortunately Marigol has to move on.  Special mention must also be given to Christine Sinclair who kept Canada in contention against Germany and then played through a broken nose.  Canada deserved better than its finish and so did Sinclair. Because they didn’t, Sinclair missed out on the team.

Left Wing: Marta.  The best player in the world and possibly of all time.  Brazil exited early but that is the fault of federation and coach, not of Marta who scored four goals, two in spectacular fashion that only Marta could pull off.  That is not to mention her the other parts of her game: (1) her assists, and (2) by virtue of being Marta, she kept opposing defenders occupied long enough for her teammates to score.